A Prison of Desires


It’s a word, in our culture at least, that carries an almost mystical power. Consider how often people claim the purpose of their actions or words is to pursue, defend, obtain, express, or otherwise encourage freedom. It’s as if the mere mention of such goals is capable of legitimizing nearly any activity as an expression of the good, the true, and the beautiful.

But surely if a concept carries such power it’s worth closer consideration. And one way to start is to ask a simple question: what is freedom for?

Robert George takes up this question in his new book, Conscience and Its Enemies. Though his argument is situated in the context of higher education, I think it has a much wider relevance to our culture at large. He begins by noting that many now intend the educational process to “enable students to become truly ‘authentic’ individuals—people who are true to themselves.” According to this way of thinking,

to be true to one’s self is to act on one’s desires. Indeed, what one fundamentally is, is one’s desires. So authenticity—that is, being true to oneself—is understood to consist in doing what you really want to do, in defiance, if necessary of expectations based on…outmoded moral ideas and social norms.

One doesn’t have to look too far to find similar notions in other prominent aspects of our culture, including all the usual suspects: music, books, magazines, T.V., movies, and sports. More and more, the freedom to follow one’s desires is met with everything from nods of approval to audience applause. (All of this glosses over the fact how impossible such a philosophy would be for everyone to live consistently, but that’s another blog post.)

It’s worth asking, however, if this “freedom of authenticity” is really freedom after all. George, once again referring to an educational context, makes the important point:

Personal authenticity, in a classical understanding of liberal-arts education, consists in self-mastery…. According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, learning promises liberation, but it is not liberation from demanding moral ideas and social norms, or liberation to act on our desires—it is, rather, liberation from slavery to those desires, from slavery to self.

In our saner moments, we might recognize that those acting only in accordance with their desires have more in common with animals than with rational, moral human beings. In fact, saying this is almost to do a disservice to at least some animals. Many a dog has proven to be a great pet in large measure because it’s been trained to curtail its natural desires for its own good as well as that of its owners, other animals, etc. How ironic that our modern, supposedly enlightened mindset actually reduces us to something effectively sub-human.

Granted, we might be justified in adopting the “freedom is fulfilling my desires” model if we could make a credible case from history (or anywhere else for that matter) that our desires are consistently and reliably good in the first place. But history—with all its callousness, blood, and folly—seems to suggest the opposite is true as often as not. And what is true in large scale may be confirmed on the individual level with any kind of honest self-reflection. I shudder to think what would happen if I ate as much ice cream as I wanted, as often as I wanted to.

No, the modern freedom of authenticity is actually a dehumanizing prison of desires. Real freedom accepts limitation in order to achieve greater flourishing. It binds to expand. As Tim Keller, applying this concept to marriage, offers this:

The only way for you to be truly free is to link your feeling to an obligation. Only if you commit yourself to loving in action, day in and day out, even when feelings and circumstances are in flux, can you truly be a free individual and not a pawn of outside forces….

…Indeed, it is the covenantal commitment that enables married people to become people who love each other.…Eventually all this leads to wells of memory and depths of feeling and enjoyment of the other person that frames and enhances the still crucial episodes of romantic, sexual passion in your married life.

…So if your definition of “love” stresses affectionate feelings more than unselfish actions, you will cripple your ability to maintain and grow strong love relationships. On the other hand, if you stress the action of love over the feeling, you enhance and establish the feeling. That is one of the secrets of living life, as well as marriage. (The Meaning of Marriage)

It’s a secret, it would appear, that more of us need to remember…or learn in the first place. To live it out, we might turn a lyric into a prayer: “Use my head alongside my heart/So tame my flesh, and fix my eyes/A tethered mind, freed from the lies” (Mumford and Sons, “I Will Wait”).

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